In the lead up to free agency, one of the main concepts I heard about most from fans was the timeline of the Lakers’ young core. As the argument goes, the best way for the Lakers to continue to build the team is to seek out players of similar ages to their already existing young core.
LA needs a center, try to get 27 year old Hassan Whiteside or 23 year old Bismack Biyombo. Need a small forward? Look at 24 year old Allen Crabbe, 24 year old Harrison Barnes, 23 year old Maurice Harkless, or even 27 year old Kent Bazemore. These players, the argument goes, could grow with the Lakers’ young core so that when Russell, Randle, Clarkson, and Ingram are more mature and ready to win, the Lakers could potentially have an entire rotation of players in various stages of their respective primes.
All of this sounds great and makes total sense. In some cases, I have even argued for it myself.
In the wake of the Lakers signing soon to be 30 year old Timofey Mozgov and 31 year old Luol Deng — besides the case against paying them what the Lakers are (this applies more to Mozgov) for the number of years they are — the most frequent criticism I have heard about the signings is that neither player is on the young core’s timeline. When the Lakers’ young core is ready to win, these critics say, Mozgov and Deng will be too old or no longer very good.
While there’s a certain logic to this, my counter to this argument is…why should we really care about that?
The way the Lakers are really going to get back to being a contending team is if their young players take the next step and turn into stars. That’s the path. It’s been proven time and time again that a major key to becoming a contending team in the NBA is by drafting a transformational player. Russell and Ingram are #2 overall picks. Randle was picked 7th. These three — or four, if you include Clarkson — represent the Lakers best chance at this and are the key to this team’s future.
But that future is not now. I have my concerns with the Mozgov and Deng contracts. I have spelled those out as best I can in this space already. But when looking at what really matters, how these players line up with the Lakers’ young core’s timeline really isn’t the thing I am looking at. If anything the work they do with the young players in practice, on the bench, in the film room, and in game situations over the next three years to help them become the players the Lakers need them to be matters more than being on the same timeline as them.
Look at it this way: After next season (his 3rd year), Randle will be eligible for a rookie contract extension. If he does not get one, he will then play his 4th season and enter the summer of 2018 as a restricted free agent should the Lakers extend him a qualifying offer. Play the same scenario out for Russell and he’s a RFA in the summer of 2019. Do so for Ingram and it’s the summer of 2020.
That’s 4 years from now. It’s also the year both Deng and Mozgov, should they still be with the Lakers, will come of the books. And then, they’ll be gone.
In between now and then they are very likely to help this young core in any number of ways on and off the court by being good teammates in every manner they have both been up to this point in their careers. They are very likely to help the Lakers win some games between now and then too. These guys can actually still play some pretty good basketball, you know.
From where I sit, the growth needed from the young players in the next four years matters more than anything else to future success. Achieving that growth is a process that can be accomplished any number of ways. The Lakers chose the route of signing high character, good basketball playing older veterans who can serve as both on court helpers and off court mentors.
Yes, they paid a lot of money for them. And yes, they will do so for 4 years.
But, in next 2-4 years, we’ll see what strides these young guys make. If they turn out to be as good as the Lakers hope they are, there will be plenty of more chances to sign guys who are on their timeline. And, I can almost guarantee you, if these guys are that good, there won’t be many free agents who decline meetings or suddenly need an extra year/more money in their contract to play with them.
And if things really do go that way, we might actually end up appreciating Deng and Mozgov for all they did to help make it all happen rather than lamenting how old they were when the process all started.